CLA South East member Hall Hunter Partnership, which has farms and sites in Surrey, Berkshire and West Sussex, has agreed to field test high-tech harvesting robots.
The family-run business has signed an agreement with University of Plymouth spinout Fieldwork Robotics. The latter is led by lecturer in robotics Dr Martin Stoelen, and is currently creating machines capable of picking a range of fruit and vegetables.
The collaboration will enable the technology to be field tested in a range of environments, such as fields and polytunnels, under different climatic and light conditions. Field tests could start later this year.
Once the technology has been successfully field tested it can be easily adapted for other fruit and vegetables.
The Hall Hunter Partnership grows 14,000 tonnes of raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries and its major customers include Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Tesco.
Hall Hunter Partnership chief operating officer David Green said: “HHP has always led the soft fruit industry in pushing forward productivity and quality standards on our farms and nurseries.
“This partnership with Fieldwork Robotics is an exciting new development to pioneer the harvesting of raspberries robotically at a commercial scale, we are looking forward to our first human-free hectare to be picked together.”
CLA South East represents thousands of landowners, farmers and rural businesses in Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and the Isle of Wight.
Regional director Robin Edwards said: “Technology is more important than ever, especially as uncertainty remains over European labour supply after Brexit.
“It is complex technology which needs to be able to spot a berry, assess if it’s ripe, aim and pick it without damaging the soft fruit.
“One of the challenges will be working at a commercial speed, and it will be interesting to see how the technology develops.”
Dr Stoelen said: “The collaboration agreement we’ve signed with Hall Hunter is a big step forward for Fieldwork and the team at the University of Plymouth.
“I’m looking forward to seeing our robots operating in the field.”
Dr Stoelen is working on a tomato harvesting project with the Sunqiao and Shanghai Jiaotong University in China. He is also developing applications for cauliflowers after receiving funding from Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year, £10million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.